The city's firefighter unions have stepped up pressure on Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon to reverse proposed cuts to the Fire Department, airing a radio ad that says the budget would increase response times to emergencies.
The department is one of the hardest-hit agencies in the proposed budget, absorbing $3 million in cuts that would result in the closures of two fire companies - essentially, two fire apparatuses would be shut down and its firefighters reassigned within the agency. City officials note that no one would be laid off and that no firehouses would close permanently, though houses would close on a rotating basis to reduce spending on overtime.
In the ad, which features a mock 911 call, someone calls to report a fire and is told by the dispatcher that the units will take longer to respond because the fire company closest to the caller's home has been closed. Union officials said they borrowed the idea from Philadelphia, where firefighters are mounting a similar battle against the closure of seven companies.
"It's our view that any reduction in services will compromise our ability to do our jobs, as well as put our members in jeopardy," said Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, president of the fire officers union. "It's simply ludicrous to think you can close fire units and it won't have any impact on response times."
The ad represents the latest move by the fire unions to call attention to the cuts, after a protest Monday in front of City Hall. Bob Sledgeski, president of the firefighters' union Local 734, wrote on his blog that members have distributed 15,000 fliers to residents and mailed information about closures to local businesses and state and federal politicians.
Asked about the radio ad, Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman, said it is "really sad that they have to portray our department, our services and our members in that light."
"The entire city is confronted with a serious budget crisis, and every city agency has to cut their budget to some degree," Cartwright said. "Where other fire departments are laying members off, every one of our members can look forward to coming to work every day."
The cuts call for a ladder truck in downtown and an engine in West Baltimore to be shut down. Fire Chief James S. Clack said the truck will be replaced with medic units, which are in higher demand. He said the city still has 55 fire companies in service across the city. "That's good coverage," Clack said.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, said council members are concerned that the effect on response times could be worse than anticipated and are working to restore funding.